Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson (Crown Publishers, New York, 2005) 430 pages

Dead Wake cover image
Dead Wake by Erik Larson

This must be record for length of time between publication and appearing on this site. It only came out on March 10, and here it is, 19 days later. (I have no idea why Amazon thinks this book has 448 pages: the last numbered page in mine is 430, and only one more leaf is added with author biography.)

So, yes, this is the story of the sinking of the Cunard liner Lusitania by the German submarine U-20 on Friday, May 7, 1915, at 2:10 PM local time, almost exactly one hundred years ago. But because it is an Erik Larson book, a reader can expect much more than a dry recitation of facts. Larson’s nonfiction books have the great attribute of giving a reader more of the emotional feel of the time and the place and the event. He usually does this by juxtaposing two main characters, one good and one evil, and treating them both with the same degree of precision and detail. It is up to the readers to experience the revelations that allow them to realize the heights of their imagination or the depths of their depravity.

For example, in The Devil in the White City, Larson contrasts 1893 Chicago World’s Fair designer Daniel H. Burnham with famed murdered H. H. Holmes, who posed as a doctor to lure his victims. His book In the Garden of the Beasts pairs the innocent American Martha Dodd, daughter of the American Ambassador the Nazi Germany in 1933, with the whole charm-you-to-death Nazi hierarchy. As a reader, I will never forget the scene during her outing with a top Nazi official when the couple is interrupted by a parade of irate citizens escorting a beaten woman whose hair has been rudely cut off. The crowd is screaming curses and carrying signs. Oh, the Nazi says casually, that’s just a woman who was going to marry a Jew. Don’t worry. They’re just going to stone her to death to teach others a lesson.

And that’s Larson’s way of saying “That whole Nazi-Jew thing got out of hand really quickly.”

The equivalent in Dead Wake—the title refers to the surfacing bubbles trailing a torpedo speeding to its target—is the pairing of two captains: Captain Turner of the Lusitania and Kptlt. (Captain) Schwieiger of Unterseeboot-20.  The stoic bravery of Turner, who rode the bridge wing right down into the water (page 278) and was picked up hours later by a rescue ship and ultimately survived, is obviously to be admired by every reader.  After watching seagulls swoop down and pluck the eyeballs from the floating dead, Turner brought a rifle onto his other ships and shot as many seagulls as he could (page 296). This is the kind of human observation that you come to expect from Larson.

Schwieger’s behavior after the fatal torpedo shot is more problematic. His girlfriend later claimed (anonymously) that Schwieger was “a shattered man” (page 292) because of the sinking and loss of life (only 764 of the 1959 on board survived). However, Schwieger’s own ship’s log (which survived when the U-20 later ran aground on a sandy beach) shows him taking another shot at an oil tanker only five minutes (!) after sinking the Lusitania (page 293).

Oddly, out of the 7 torpedoes on board U-20, only the G6 model fired at the Lusitania actually sank a ship. The rest either misfired or missed or did not cause major damage. Atop such small things does the world pivot.

Larson provides details on many of the passengers, mostly in first or second class. The new Boddy lifejackets caused the deaths of many because people put them on incorrectly or even upside-down, causing them to float rump-up until the sea claimed them. The loss of a rare copy of the A Christmas Carol annotated in Charles Dickens’s own hand is also lamented: bookstore owner Charles Lauriat took it into a lifeboat, but it then tumbled into the sea when the lifeboat overturned. (Note to Larson: the remark on page 311 about Nellie Huston’s bulky “derriere” is hard to reference because somehow the origin of the comment on page 166 is left out of the index. Fix that for next printing, okay?) J

One would think that three years after the Titanic catastrophe in 1912 and its lifeboat issues, the lifeboats on the Lusitania would not be a problem. But the Lusitania showed that sheer numbers of lifeboats is not the solution (the ship carried enough lifeboats for 2605 people: page 69). The British navy had siphoned off most of the experienced seamen and those grappling with the lines and “falls” on the Lusitania doubled as baggage handlers and servers. Because it was the day before landing in Liverpool, many of the crew were in the hold, reachable only by one electric elevator, marshalling the bags for arrival. When the torpedo hit, most of these were either killed instantly or drowned when the ship went under in an astonishing 18 minutes. As a result, the launching of the lifeboats, not commenced immediately because no one really thought a single 20 foot torpedo could sink a monster ship almost a thousand feet long.

Some lifeboats tumbled their passengers into the water, while others were dropped right atop others. Due to the list of the damaged ship, some released lifeboats crushed passengers waiting to board. The speed of the ship worked against them too, and not only by driving water through the 40-fott gash in the hull. Controls on the bridge failed, so the ship still drifted forward as it sank, sweeping lifeboats to the rear. As a result, only six of the 20 permanent lifeboats were launched properly.

A final mystery revolves around why on earth the British allowed the Lusitania to wander alone toward the Irish Sea when (a) the British knew U-20 had sunk other ships recently and was still around, (b) the safer alternate route north around Ireland was being used, and (c) the navy had provided escorts for other important ships before. Readers are left to wonder if First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill was protected some very important derrieres himself when he tried to blame it all on Captain Turner (page 318).

Growing in America, I was of course taught that the sinking of Lusitania with US citizens aboard was one the primary reasons that the USA declared war on Germany. The truth is that two years elapsed before the USA declared war and this was mainly because of the Zimmerman Telegram promising Mexico the return of US territory if they joined the central powers. But the Lusitania was a big thing, and we expect big things to have big effects, even though they might not.

Larson’s book helps put the sinking in perspective, as does his little discourses on things like the history of submarine warfare. Submarine warfare went from a gentile form of piracy during wartime to a matter of life and death very quickly. Submarines were supposed to stop non-warships and, after allowing the crew to leave in lifeboats, either sink them or claim them as prizes. But it was hard to crew a prize and a submarine on the surface is at its most vulnerable, so the shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later became the rule of the day. Even Sound of Music patriarch von Trapp sank a French liner and killed 684 (page 106). Purists cringed, I suppose, but there was a war to be won. So there.

This book is Larson’s way of saying “That whole submarine warfare thing got out of hand really quickly.”

Skeletons on the Zahara by Dean King

Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival by Dean King (Back Bay, 2005) 351 pages + 16 page “Reading Group Guide”

Skeletons on the Zahara cover image
Skeletons on the Zahara

I found this book tucked away on a shelf in my local B&N, the kind of fortuitous finds as you walk by that I’ve talked about before. I bought the book and proceeded to devour it in enormous bites: 10, 20, 50 pages at the time, staying up much too late for my own good just to see what happens next to these poor American sailors shipwrecked in 1815 and enslaved by the wandering tribes of the Western Sahara. The good news is that most of them made it back to the USA, although many with mind and body so shattered that they had only a few years left to live. The teenage cabin boy, however, died in 1882 at the age of 82, showing either the resiliency of the young or how the harsh life of the cabin boy back then prepared one for suffering and deprivation.

I told you I like to see connections, not just “I liked it…it had a beat and I could dance to it.” (Wow, is that an old reference. I got to listen to an older mom in B&N yesterday trying to explain what these odd, flat platters were that held spiral grooves with music on then called vinyl to her dumbfounded son: “Way back beyond CDs, beyond tape cassettes, there were once…” (insert wide-eyed look of awe and reverence here) “…records.” That was trippy. For those who now think I spend all my time in bookstores, let me just say “Yes.”)

Anyway this isn’t about how the CD guys screwed up digital sound so badly that people are going back to the original equalized analog recordings…although I am tempted to see the future of ebooks in this mass abandonment of what could have and should have been a much more enriched experience for users (sigh). OK, my spleen has been purged of its foul humors for now. Let’s see if I can speak intelligently about the book instead of The Book.

I’m back to the “Zahara” now, which is how they spelled it in 1815. We know a lot about their adventures because two of the survivors published accounts of their time as captives before they were ransomed by the British agent in Swearah, the biggest port in Morocco. The Americans, who obviously had not spent a lot of time in Africa recently due to the war, wisely passed themselves off as British seamen, who were valued by the more sophisticated tribes and ransomed either in the north or in Saint Louis on the Senegal River in the south. In between was more than a thousand miles of desert. The trick was buying the captives at a low enough price to make ransoming them profitable, with would-be rescuers fighting or negotiating their way through tribes anxious either to claim the Americans for the prize or to work them to death as slaves.

Captain Riley published the story of his ordeal as An authentic Narrative of the Loss of the American Brig Commerce (the full title is all of 74 words long(!): I have used the first 11 words only). This book was one of the most popular in the early 1800s in America. Every library had to have one, and a young Abraham Lincoln read the tale and never forgot what Riley had to say about the degraded life of a slave, and not even for life (page 311).

As a tale of misadventure, you can’t beat the voyage of the Commerce. The War of 1812 had just ended, a war vigorously opposed by New England traders, and eleven men from Connecticut were anxious to get back to sea to settle three years of accumulated debts and inactivity. Some had succumbed to the temptation of smuggling or trade with Canada, but some of the crew had recently been released from captivity while trying to run the British blockade of American ports. The plan was to sail to New Orleans, then Gibraltar and Africa, exchanging cargo in each port, perhaps looping back through the West Indies before returning to Connecticut. However, high winds and seas drove them off course and onto the rocks and wrecked them on Cape Bojador opposite the Canary Islands on August 28, 1815, one of the most desolate places on the west coast of Africa (page 46).

Even as the survivors staggered ashore, the locals (who proudly treated each wreck as treasure ships filled with materials essential to desert survival) showed up to help relieve the crew of money, clothing, cargo, and even timbers and nails needed to repair their longboat, which was damaged on the rocky beach. After one man, picked up in New Orleans, was killed or left for dead (the captain wrote it both ways at different times), the other 11 took to sea in the longboat, but head back to land in desperation a few days later.

Now weak and claimed by the Arabs nomads, the sailors are split up into 3 or 4 loose groups that sometimes meet but mostly wander until Riley convinces the desperate son-in-law of a sheik that he and his men are more valuable as ransomed survivors than weakened slaves. The story of Sidi Hamet escorting these men through hundreds of miles of hostile territory makes up the bulk of the narrative.

If there is a limitation to “Commerces” struggles, it’s that for about half of them (5 of 11), their enslavement lasted all of about two months. Yes, about eight weeks; 60 days. Imagine what they would have endured for years on end, a fate probably played out for 4 of the original 12 on the ship (one was apparently killed, and the other 7 returned home).

Author King is a specialist in writing about sailing ships and yachts. While researching another book, he stumbled across the book written by Captain James Riley, age 37, of Middletown, Connecticut, the captain of the ill-fated Commerce. His book came out in 1817, shortly after the first five captives had been ransomed by the American agent in Gibraltar through good services of the British consul in Swearah, William Willshire. Another survivor, Archibald Robbins, 22, who was held in slavery much longer than Captain Riley, also published an account, which King merges into a single narrative for the first time in this book.

The differences in the two accounts is startling, according to King. Captain Riley tried to learn the Arabic language his captor’s spoke, and was smart enough to meet his owners halfway by trying to understand how this survival mentality differed from the American culture of plenty. Robbins, on the other hand, never missed a chance to sneer at this “heathen” way of life with disdain and went as far as to pretend to be a total moron, unable to learn even simple tasks like herding camels because he feared that otherwise they would never part with him. Since both survived, it’s hard to condemn one or the other, but the extra beatings and abuse Robbins had to put up with make his strategy seem risky at best (why bother to feed a lazy, worthless idiot?).

I loved the books packaging. It includes a roster of names, several illustrations, plenty of maps, a vocabulary of desert terms (a friq is loose collection of small families traveling together), helpful footnotes, and a reader’s guide. King even risked life and limb to travel part of the route on camel.

King found the desert and people mostly unchanged in the past 200 years.

Proxima by Stephen Baxter

Proxima by Stephen Baxter (ROC Books, 2013) 468 pages

Proxima by Stephen Baxter

Well, this one comes with sort of heavy heart. I promised last week (on March 8) that I would do Stephen Baxter’s Proxima “soon.” But I never dreamed that the same week would see the passing of Terry Pratchett (on March 12). I know Terry Pratchett not only through the Discworld series but as the co-author with Baxter of the Long Earth series of science fiction books (Pratchett might point out that it’s really all fantasy).

Let me deal with Terry Pratchett’s passing right here up front, and then we’ll talk about Baxter’s Proxima. I have to admit I’ve read more Baxter than Pratchett, and I think together they made a better “author” in some senses than they did apart. I started reading Baxter with the Manifold series of alternate time/space realities and the exploration of vast spaces. Baxter is what I would call a “hard science” science fiction guy, and of course a lot of reviews follow the Daily Telegraph and call Baxter the “new Arthur C. Clarke.” But hard science can be, for me, well, hard, so I like the scientific detail balanced out with healthy dose of sprightly writing and humor and a certain amount of “wait until I tell you what happened then…” energy. Not that Baxter lacks this, but I think he did it much better in the Long Earth books with Pratchett involved—no matter what the level of involvement was.

I am of course aware of Pratchett’s struggles with early onset Alzheimer’s disease over the past ten years. Here’s another very weird thing: only this week did I finally see Still Alice, the movie where Julianne Moore plays a Columbia University professor with early onset Alzheimer’s and won the Academy Award for it. (Want more weirdness? My mother died a year ago from Alzheimer-like symptoms: she actually had an undiagnosed vitamin B deficiency that could be arrested and not reversed.) But, as my father told me right before he died (cancer), “You gotta die of something.”

So I am sad to see Terry Pratchett go. There’s another reason too. He and I were close enough in age that anything that happened to him makes me feel uncomfortable. But as I told my wife when we left the Still Alice movie: “At my age, I am blessedly free of the threat of early onset anything.” This remark is not in any way meant to diminish the struggles and suffering of Terry Pratchett and his family. He will be missed.

Anyway, there’s a book to speak of in here as well. I bought Proxima right after Thanksgiving in my local B&N (don’t be put off by my linking to Amazon with these books covers). Even before I read it, I noticed that the afterword is dated December 2012, the text is copyrighted 2013, and the “First Roc Hardcover Printing” is dated November 2014. So right away I wondered what this text had been doing for two years until trees were felled to print it out. It turns out (maybe lean in a little closer here) that these books are published in Great Britain first and only later on in the USA. So I immediately ordered up a copy of Baxter’s second Proxima book, Ultima, because I didn’t want to wait for the US edition. If I am violating some kind of international law by doing so, I’m sorry. At least I didn’t get the message like I do when I try to order books from Canada for my friend: This book cannot be shipped to the United States. I presume that the globalization of the book trade has only begun.

(You know, I said these essays were not meant to be book reviews, but I bet you didn’t think we’d be more than halfway through and there’s not a word about the contents of the book at all, did you?)

So here’s what the book is about, without harmful spoilers. In 2166, a guy named Yuri Eden who has been in suspended animation for 100 years is awakened and sent on a relativistic starship to Proxima Centauri, where a habitable planet has been detected in close orbit around the flare star. The groups of colonists (it’s sort of a prison colony) are sprinkled around the planet and left to fend for themselves, at least as far as they know. Some of the groups do their best to destroy each other, and even the tribes who cooperate tend to bash each other’s brains out when they blunder into each other out on the savannah. In short, life in the future is pretty much like life right now and life back then.

I was impressed by Baxter’s deft handling of all the scientific issues. I didn’t think he would address the flaring issue (which can fry you pretty badly if you’re out in the open), but he did. In fact, he came up with a really nice way of letting the native species survive them. I didn’t think he would address the “time lag” issue with the people left back on earth, but he did. Even when (mini-spoiler?) the earthlings and colonists discover “hatches” that allow instantaneous transfer of people between places light-years away, it still takes 4+ years to let the folks back at home know via radio that you’ve arrived safely. Well, can’t you just run back through the hatch and deliver the safe arrival message yourself? Sure you can, but then on your third passage, your buddies would still not be 100% sure you actually made it.

In spite of this, I wasn’t quite carried away by Baxter’s narrative. Yes, I turned pages and went from one chapter to another, but I was always conscious of turning pages and transitioning from chapter to chapter. I wanted to be swept away by this book, and I just wasn’t. But that’s okay. It was still a satisfying read, if not one that I carried around and went “listen to this!” as I annoyed all my friends.

The book is divided into seven major sections and 90 chapters (about 5 pages per chapter) which keep things moving along at a good clip. I was even able to find a typo, which always makes me proud. On page 350, after a political situation, the text reads “Then ringers started to be pointed….” This should be “fingers” and not ringers.

I liked how Baxter handles the AI issues. On earth, there are these magnificent AI entities who nearly destroyed a Cold-War-tense earth and so now their activities are strictly circumscribed, which doesn’t stop one called Earthshine form plotting all he likes. It also doesn’t stop the colonizers from sending some rover-like AI units along to help the colonists out. The Earthshine AI is based on a human personality (guess who?) but has been heavily modified along the way. These AIs all seem to be as conscious as “real people,” and when one of the other rovers is “lobotomized” by a rogue tribe, you fell like one of the characters has died.

The book does pose some interesting questions about life, what it means to be human (if not civilized) and the importance of family. The story is not-quite-self-contained, but at least is not just a big build-up to get you to buy the next two-three-four books in the series. But I can tell you that there’s one heckuva big bang at the end that changes pretty much everything in the good old solar system.

The Poet and the Vampyre by Andrew McConnell Stott

The Poet and the Vampyre: The Curse of Byron and the Birth of Literature’s Greatest Monsters by Andrew McConnell Stott (Pegasus Books, 2014) 434 pages


I discussed Ada’s Algorithm about Ada Lovelace last week and fully intended to move on to something else like Stephen Baxter’s Proxima: soon, I promise. But Stott’s book was stacked right underneath Ada and I started looking through it again and decided to do these two books back-to-back, sort of like bookends. One of the things they have in common is that both authors completely trash Byron, at least as everything other that a brilliant writer (his letters are as entertaining as his poetry).

In fact, if you had any warm fuzzy feelings about Byron, and Mary and Percy Shelley, as human beings who you might be interested in partying or hanging out with, this book might put those feelings to rest. If there was anything worse than being friends with narcissistic Byron, it was having the utter misfortune to be his child. His daughter Ada was forbidden to study literature because her mother Annabella feared the potential risk that her brain might be wired like her father’s.

This book pivots around the story of Byron’s adventures in Switzerland during the summer of 1816 (the famous “year without a summer”) after he fled England. He left because of his wife Annabella’s poisoning the atmosphere regarding his behavior (the most scandalous being Byron’s incest with his half-sister), and also because his creditors were closing in. Byron, as the book points out, considered collecting the royalties on his literary works beneath a noble like himself. Combined with his elaborate lifestyle—Bryon traveled the continent in a replica of Napoleon’s ornate carriage (page 16), which he neglected to pay for—the poet constantly found himself short on ready cash but long on people who were more than willing to “lend” him what he needed in exchange for a brush with greatness.

So Byron is the poet of the book title. Who is the “vampire” guy?

That would be Doctor John Polidori, newly minted physician (he was only 20) hired to accompany Bryon on his continental adventure because Bryon, in addition to his deformed foot, suffered from maladies as diverse as headaches and chronic constipation (page 21). Although born in England, Polidori’s Italian roots were enough for Byron to heap frequent scorn on his abilities as a writer (page 19 and elsewhere) and mock him whenever he liked. When Polidori stayed behind on an excursion, Byron wasted no time in rejoicing, “Thank God…Polidori is not here” (page 149). The animosity was obvious from the start: “I don’t like this ori” wrote Bryon, apparently objecting to the doctor’s foreign-sounding name (page 18). However, the party needed Polodori’s language skills, so they signed him up.

The “Vampyre” in the book’s title refers to the famous “competition” that the Shelleys and Byron and Polidori engaged in once they realized that not only was the summer of 1816 coming late to the Swiss Alps, but it was not coming at all. Therefore, Bryon challenged the foursome to write “ghost stories” during the time that the chilly and rainy weather kept them housebound.

Percy Shelley doesn’t seem to have written anything at all (page 146). He did write two major poems that summer, drafts of which were found in a trunk in a bank vault only in 1976 (page 178: I love stories like this). Byron’s effort amounted to a few rough pages, although these would greatly vex Polidori when his book called The Vampyre appeared with Byron credited as author (page 239). Mary Shelley, of course, worked for eighteen months and produced her book Frankenstein in 1818.

Byron doesn’t seem to have wanted to take credit for the first thorough expression of the vampire theme in English. “What do I know about Vampires?” he wrote to London. But this seems mainly because he considered Polidori’s prose far beneath his own poetry.

Almost everyone who appears in this book comes to a bad end. By 1824, all of the males were dead. Byron himself, of course, managed to totally dissipate health and talent in a constant quest for stimulation, mainly sexual in nature. His death in Greece at 36 in 1824 from fever probably says as much about the state of his immune system as the unhealthy swamps he camped in. Shelley drowned while swimming with a friend in 1822 at the age of 29. And Polidori went first, committing suicide in 1821 at 25 after the controversy over the authorship of The Vampyre left him drained and a severe carriage accident. The only people who lived out a relatively normal lifespan were the two women of that summer: Mary Wollstonecraft (nee Godwin) Shelley and Claire (also known as Clara and Jane) Clairmont.

Stott does a nice job of fleshing out Mary and her step-sister Claire. They grew up in the Juvenile Library, a bookstore for children in London run by George Godwin, Mary’s father, a famous free-thinker and author. He met Mary Wollstonecraft in 1796 and soon embraced the new “rights of woman” and “free love” movement (page 65). This was not quite the women’s lib and free love of the 1960s, but just the thought that women could chose the men they slept with was enough to rock the world. Marriage was still necessary when a pregnancy came along (birth control came much later), but Mary and Clair soon changed even that.

Percy Shelley was married when he met Mary (his wife soon committed suicide), and Claire bombarded the married Byron with letters until he became her lover (the term “groupies” comes to mind). Claire became pregnant with Bryon’s child after they joined him in Switzerland, a daughter who Byron all but ignored, born in early 1817. Mary ultimately landed her man; Claire did not. Byron was mean enough to suggest that Shelley, who had already run off with both girls when they were only 16, might be the father of Claire’s child (page 209).

Mary Shelley lived until 1851, dying at the age of 53 from a brain tumor (page 296). Claire had perhaps the best revenge on Byron and the rest, passing away in Italy at the age of 80 in 1879. By then she was a curious figure attached to the Regency Dandies of two generations before. The story of her odd legacy in the “free love” movement, starting on page 305, is likely worth a book by itself.

It’s clear the only people Byron respected were those who were wealthy enough to keep up with the poet and smart enough to spar with him intellectually. One of these was John Cam Hobhouse, a noble who Byron befriended at Cambridge and who remained close to the poet for the remainder of the poet’s brief life. At the time, England ruled the world and these people ruled England: people like Shelley, Byron, and Hobhouse. Mere mortals like John Polidori and Claire Clairmont could not hope to keep up, although they tried very hard.

The last word on the great Lord Byron must come from another rich and dissolute friend, Scrope Davies, the man with the trunk in the vault at Barclay’s Bank. While admiring the fact that Byron was “very agreeable and very clever,” he also wrote that Byron was “vain, overbearing, conceited, suspicious, and jealous…and thought the whole world ought to be constantly employed in admiring his poetry and himself; could never write a poem or a drama without making himself its hero, and he was the subject of his own conversation” (page 178).


Ada’s Algorithm by James Essinger

Ada’s Algorithm: How Lord Byron’s Daughter Ada Lovelace Launched the Digital Age by James Essinger (Melville House, 2014) 254 pages

AA Essinger

The story of Ada Lovelace is usually covered in History of Computing 101 (at least it was when I taught it). She was the daughter of Lord Byron (George Gordon), and this fact is typically mentioned so often that it’s easy to overlook the fact that Ada had a mother too. That’s a bit ironic, given Byron’s history of involvement with, or neglect of, his offspring (Mary and Percy Shelley weren’t much better). Unless Ada inherited some DNA from Bryon that zapped up her neurons to be more like her father’s – I think few could deny Bryon’s genius – Ada’s intellectual accomplishments were mainly due to the efforts of her mother, Anabella Milbanke, Lady Byron.

And what were those accomplishments? Well, it all depends on who you talk to. Essinger’s position is obvious: the book’s subtitle is How Lord Byron’s Daughter Ada Lovelace Launched the Digital Age. Most of the back cover is taken up with the blurb The story of the woman who wrote the first computer program – in 1843. This is silly, of course. No one programmed a computer in 1843, and not many people cared about Ada until interest in her was rekindled by code-breaking Alan Turing of The Imitation Game film (how sad is it we have to name-check famous people today by their movies and not by their writings? See Walter’s First Law: Once things change, they don’t change back.)

Oddly, Ada does not really appear much in this book until page 166. Until then she is mentioned only fleetingly during the main narrative, which focuses on Lord Byron and Charles Babbage. So let’s start with them.

Byron married the well-born and well-connected Anne Isabella (everyone called her Anabella) Milbanke in early 1815. Ada was born later that year, on December 10, 1815. Byron, widely thought mad and a sexual deviant by a number of people who counted, including his wife (who had no problem letting the right people know), left for the continent to meet Percy and Mary Shelley in Switzerland in April of 1816, never to return.

There’s a book still near the bottom of my book stack about the events of the chilly summer of 1816, weather caused the aftereffects of the Tambora volcano eruption. I knew about this season mainly for the origins of the book Frankenstein – if you can’t go out, why not stay in and write? But it turned out to have many more twists and turns than I ever expected. A lot of people orbited far too close and got sucked into the Black Hole of Lord Bryon, never to return to normal. And that includes Byron himself. (If you haven’t read Byron, by all means do. He was the hard-core hip-hop artist and rapper of his day…and all the grown-ups were in a tizzy.)

Anyway, Lady Byron was so afraid that Ada would end up like her wild father that she only allowed Ada to study math and science. No literature for young Ada! Take that, bad daddy. Ada excelled and studied with some of the leading scholars of the day, among them Augustus De Morgan of De Morgan’s Laws of logic (page 134.)

As for Babbage, he is a fascinating character; the inventor and erstwhile builder of the Difference Engine and Analytical Engine (conceived 1822). The book follows the development of more and more sophisticated machinery to weave cloth, culminating in the Jacquard silk-weaving loom of 1804. This loom, controlled by punch cards, is an early forerunner of modern computing machines – they are just machines, you know. We’ll get to artificial intelligence (AI) books later. The point is that by the time of Ada and Babbage, thinkers were pondering if machinery could be applied to mathematics: for example, by computing the digits of pi.

Ada Lovelace, then just Lady Byron’s maiden daughter, met Babbage in June of 1833, socially, with her mother, at the age of 17 (page 77). Babbage was famous, a friend of writer Charles Dickens and astronomer John Herschel (page 106). He was also a widower who never remarried after the death of his wife Georgiana in childbirth in 1827. He was also 41 when the 17-year-old Ada came calling with her mom.

Naturally, some people, even today, see this relationship as “fatherly nurturing” and others who see it as something decidedly more lecherous (then there’s that modern Lovelace name notoriety…). Babbage had Ada translate a paper by an Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea, a paper Babbage had urged Menabrea to write to drum up support for Babbage’s Analytical Engine (page 142). Much of Ada’s reputation rests on the notes she wrote to accompany her translation, especially Note G, which either show her as a perceptive genius regarding the potential of computers to transform human experience, or basically sloppy and clueless about what was essentially a programmable calculator.

So was Ada a brilliant complement to the uppity and prickly Babbage? (Examples of Babbage’s personality and difficult behavior are found on pages 85, 91, and 142.) Or was she just a flirty girl who wrote some letters and brightened the day of a guy going through a difficult period in his life? You can find evidence for both positions, even in this book, which clearly wants to take readers down the first path.

It doesn’t help that Essinger does not reproduce Ada’s technical comments in Note G in full. Essinger says they are way beyond what should be in a book for general readers, and I tend to agree. (I was once told that every equation that appeared in one of my books cut the potential readership in half.) There are other places to explore Ada’s work if you like. So when Essinger does get around to the details of Ada’s “algorithm” on page 177, you sort of have to take his word for it.

On balance, your opinion of Ada could go either way, with support for both sides.

The anti-Ada-the-first-programmer argument coalesces around a thesis written by Bruce Collier in 1990. I give credit to Essinger for bringing it up on page xiii, and quoting it at length. Essentially, Collier claims, Ada was “a manic-depressive with the most amazing delusions about her own talents, and a rather shallow understanding of Charles Babbage and the Analytical Engine… I guess someone has to be the most overrated figure in the history of computing.”

However, Essinger’s book does little to convince readers that Collier is dead wrong about Ada. Much of what we know about the working relationship between Babbage and Ada come from a handful of letters between the two, some of which are as flirty as some might fear. To his credit, Essinger quotes a few passages from these letters on pages 184-186 and 205-206: she’s his “Fairy” and he calls her his “Enchantress of Number.” Somewhat reluctantly, Essinger concedes a “romantic dimension” to their relationship but denies anything sexual between Babbage and the married Ada (she married at 19 and had 3 children before her death at age 36 in 1852, the same age as her famous father died).

I’m going to close with a final thought: If Ada had not been a 17-year-old woman when she met Babbage, I think there would be much less controversy swirling around her role in the history of computing. But I guess someone has to comfort old scientists in their later years.  🙂